John Bolton-Wood triumphed throughout the opening night of Opera Australia’s winter season. Without his comic genius and vocal sureties in the Rossini double-bill of Il Signor Bruschino and La scala di seta, the bunting and the black-tie reception turned on by the wounded management would have been even more of a mockery.

As papa Bruschino, Bolton-Wood was subtle and supple in convincing us that the old man is initially bewildered and then indignant that a complete stranger is being accepted as his son. His improvisations were as enchanting as the rehearsed mannerisms. For instance, when an arm-rest fell off his dining chair, he held his own forearm in its place. In La scala di seta, he carried off the heart and then the virtue of a young girl despite his deliberately clichéd arias exposing a feckless fidelity and an unprepossessing stature in a uniform fit for a chocolate soldier. His singing seems effortless because it is so much a part of his characterizations. Inclined to a light baritone, he moved into darker realms, always maintaining the precision and pace of the patter. Was there anything he could not have done? Bolton-Wood has put himself into position as a frontrunner for yet another Green Room Award.

He contributed more to the evening’s entertainment with a single wiggle of his cane than did all the directions from Stuart Maunder whose realisation of the farcical was limited to having characters lurk behind pillars, under tables and crouch beside chairs. The electric charge that must connect them if the humour is to spark across the lights to keep the audience chuckling was never switched on. This flatness was compounded by a monotonal treatment of the commedia from which the plots derived. Maunder erased any prospect that the violence that shadows the fun and games could pounce from the verbal to the physical, that the fury immanent in a Rossini crescendo could erupt into a lethal brawl. The suspension of empathy that allows us to laugh depends on tensions between passion and silliness.

As the heroine of Il Signor Bruschino, Emma Matthews was fluid in her dignified portrayal, her coloratura containing any temptation to display her gift for designing maids. Leanne Kenneally and Jacqueline Dark as the cousins Guila and Lucilla in La scala di seta were ideally matched, the former crystal clear and determined, the latter richly nuanced and voluptuous. Kenneally swept through emotions and adornments with grace and energy. Dark had excelled as the servant in Bruschino, a tantalising start surpassed after interval.

As the love interest in both pieces, David Hobson was returning to romantic tenor leads. He succeeded at brief recitatives and in his articulation. Elsewhere, the rasp in his timbre was relieved by flashes of even less pleasing sounds before he rang clear for one bar towards the close of La scala. His dash served him well as the imposter Bruschino. So much mastery of techniques needs an instrument which can benefit from the effort.

As the dumb and drunken servant, Richard Alexander, established his credentials in his “vengeance” number. The other men were vocally serviceable: John Antoniou as innkeeper, Tom Hamilton as a Police Commissioner and Christopher Dawes as the guardian. Dramatically, they have to learn that caricature need not be one-dimensional.

The opera theatre’s pit is undergoing repairs so that the band of about twenty was on show, its output no longer baffled by the overhanging stage. In this advantageous circumstance, the players achieved more individually than as an ensemble, though they sparkled in the overture to La scala. Their conductor, Richard Bonygne, had trouble keeping pace with their commitment to the insistent vitality of Rossini’s score. Bonygne’s guidance was mechanical when the music needed strict but varied rhythms to get airborne, slack when called on to be soft, and did nothing to unclog Maunder’s direction. Where were the moments of storm? The Classical-era wit of Haydn that stands behind these early works of Rossini has always been beyond Bonygne’s compass.

The sets and costumes were recycled from a 1998 Melbourne production of Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict. This hand-me-down is the company’s backhanded tribute to the French master in the bicentennial year of his birth. The entry of Rossini’s agreeable diversions into the OA repertoire can be explained, if not justified, by the condition of the house, the state of company finances, and the want of a cast capable of sustaining a full-length comedy.